State Park Heroes: The Volunteers

November 19, 2009

Local volunteer groups are working hard to keep our state parks functioning in spite of a $14.2 million funding cut that has reduced parks services and open hours. This comes at a time when use of state parks is up, with a 38 percent increase in number of visitors annually over the past decade.

We all know that California’s state parks were recently threatened with closure due to the state’s fiscal crisis, and we know that they barely escaped that fate, and remain open with limited services. It might seem the crisis is over. Not so.

Jerry Emory, spokesman for the California State Parks Foundation told the San Francisco Chronicle that, though parks aren’t closed entirely, reduction in services is severe, and takes unexpected forms. Days of operation are largely limited to weekends, many park offices and visitor centers have been closed or had hours reduced, restrooms are closed, trash cans have been removed, and many fewer school tours and interpretive programs are offered.

Volunteers build a trail
Volunteers work on a trail in Sonoma Coast State Park. Photo courtesy Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods.

Enter the California state parks associations. Volunteer groups across the state are stepping up to carry new loads essential to fulfilling the parks’ mission. Eighty-one citizen groups, whose activities in normal times are impressive enough (education, restoration, fundraising, staffing of visitor centers), today have amped up to fill needs once met by state funding and are having a great time doing it.

You might think these groups would be discouraged, daunted by the great task before them. Not a bit of it. Lisa Bacon, longtime volunteer and board member of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods is “absolutely confident that we can keep the parks supported for as long as necessary. We will maintain the funding to keep essential programs going.”

The Stewards, which help with several state parks in western Sonoma County, have taken substantial responsibility for keeping local parks functioning. In addition to advocacy, education, and park stewardship activities, they are raising funds to keep essential services going in their parks. They pay the utility bills to keep the Sonoma Coast State Park Visitor’s Center open. Because half of the park’s restrooms have been closed, the Stewards provide portable restrooms for their outdoor Watershed Education and Environmental Living programs and are raising funds to provide them for the Sonoma Coast State Park. Armstrong Redwoods State Nature Reserve has no funding for park aids, so Stewards are staffing the information center with volunteers.

Many groups are doing extra fundraising. In Marin County, the Angel Island Association is hosting its “Angel Lights” benefit on Dec. 3 to support conservation and enhancement of the park by installing new solar-powered LEDs atop the island to replace conventional lights destroyed in last year’s fire.

Some groups, like the Mount Diablo Interpretive Association, supply anything the park needs. Recently, they put four tires on a park truck, bought a projector for the interpretive center, and put up trail signs. They also pay an interpretive aid at the Summit Museum two days a week, staff the center with volunteers on two other days, and are considering funding a fulltime aid.

A longer-term solution is also in the works. On November 3, 2009, California State Parks Foundation filed a proposed statewide ballot measure, “California State Parks and Wildlife Conservation Trust Fund Act of 2010,” to support the state park system through an $18 annual surcharge on vehicle license fees. To get the measure on the ballot for November 2010, volunteers will need to gather 435,000 valid signatures by mid-April, 2010. Click here to find out how you can help. Hope is high that this measure to ensure dedicated funding for state parks will solve financial problems.

Meanwhile at the grassroots, Californians are responding to the call to support their parks with resolve and optimism. Says Lisa Bacon of Stewards, “It’s thrilling to be part of an organization that can do so much for people.”

About the Author

Donna Whitmarsh is a Bay Nature volunteer.

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